The NFL Combine is coming to a close, but agents and teams have been (illegally) discussing potential deals throughout the entire week. With that in mind, now is a good time to evaluate the New England Patriots’ needs and players they could potentially pursue when the market opens. Coming off a disappointing Super Bowl loss in which Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense exposed the Patriots’ defense, it has become apparent to everyone that New England needs an infusion of athletic talent on the defensive side of the ball. In particular, they have clear openings on the edge as well as at the linebacker position: The Patriots consistently struggled to cover running backs all throughout the year, and they were unable to get pressure on Nick Foles throughout the entirety of the Super Bowl. In this article, I will give a list of some free agents the Patriots might sign, while also explaining how they might fit into Bill Belichick’s scheme. Today, we’ll discuss the edge rushers and linebackers.
EDGE: Aaron Lynch, Jeremiah Attaochu, Connor Barwin, David Bass, Alex Okafor, Tank Carradine, Derrick Shelby, Kerry Wynn
As I’ve written about before, the Patriots ask a lot of their edge rushers — they’re expected to set a hard edge in the run game, rush the passer on third downs and in other obvious passing situations, and cover running backs in the flat multiple times a game. Given the fact that the Patriots run a hybrid/multiple defense, they have to be able to play both standing up as a 3-4 outside linebacker and in a three-point stance as a 4-3 defensive end. And, as we saw last year, the Patriots’ simply did not have the talent needed to effectively carry out each of these responsibilities. Cassius Marsh was unable to cover or set the edge, Eric Lee was a practice squad player who was thrown into the fire a bit too early late in the year, Deatrich Wise was clearly still adjusting to the pro game, and Trey Flowers was forced to play out of position and drop into coverage. The fact that the Patriots relied on the forty year-old James Harrison, who they picked up late in December, to be on the field for 91% of their defensive snaps in the Super Bowl underscores the lack of talent they had the position. After Bill Belichick traded Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals prior to the 2016 season, it became clear that he does not value pass rushers the way the rest of the league does. That being said, the Patriots were in clear need of someone who they could rely on to get a sack in crucial situations. While the Patriots prefer their edge rushers to be disciplined in their pass rush and maintain rush lane integrity, they also like to have a guy who they can ask to get to the quarterback via whatever means necessary. Jones was that guy for a few years. Chris Long sort of filled that role in 2016. But the Patriots did not have that guy last year. Trey Flowers — who I believe is among the game’s better pass rushers — was constantly double-teamed, and no one else was able to step up.
The prospects I listed here fall predominantly into two categories: athletic 3-4 OLB/4-3 DE types who can rush the passer and drop into coverage, and bigger 4-3 defensive ends who can set a hard edge in the run game. Lynch, Attaochu, Barwin, Bass, and Okafor fall into the former category, while Carradine, Shelby, and Wynn fall into the latter.
Aaron Lynch, a 2014 fifth-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers, notched 6 sacks in his rookie campaign and subsequently recorded 6.5 in 2015. However, injuries and concerns about his effort and drive have since derailed what was once promising career. However, Lynch is still young — he turns 25 on Thursday — and still has time to turn things around. He has experience playing both as a 3-4 OLB and 4-3 DE with the 49ers, and has a lot of athletic ability that could be put to good use by the right coaching staff. While it is possible that Lynch becomes the Patriots’ latest reclamation project, it is also possible that the coaching staff determines that his attitude may not mesh with New England’s culture. If he turns his head around, however, Lynch could still become an extremely productive player.
Jeremiah Attaochu, currently of the Los Angeles Chargers, is another soon-to-be free agent with some untapped potential. The 2014 second-round draft pick started for the Chargers in 2015, where he tallied 6 sacks, but injuries derailed his 2016 and 2017 campaigns as they did with Lynch. Attaochu is primarily a 3-4 OLB, and there were concerns that he didn’t quite fit the Chargers’ new 4-3 scheme. However, the four-year veteran may better fit the Patriots’ hybrid defense. Attaochu, like Lynch, never quite lived up to his potential, but he might be able to make a difference in New England.
The 31 year-old Connor Barwin is a veteran candidate that the Patriots may look to add. He’s tallied 5 sacks in each of the past 2 seasons, and could provide some wisdom and experience that the Patriots’ young edge rusher group currently lacks. The main concern with him is that his age catches up with him soon; the Patriots should probably be looking for more long-term solutions at the position. A favorite of long-time defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, I wouldn’t be surprised if Belichick takes a look at the versatile 3-4 OLB next week.
David Bass is a more under-the-radar kind of candidate. He’s spent some time as a backup with the Chicago Bears, Tennessee Titans, and Seattle Seahawks since entering the league in 2013, but was able to be a solid part of the New York Jets’ pass rush rotation in 2017 after Seattle released him. The Jets also run a bit of a hybrid defensive scheme, so there’s a pretty good chance he’d succeed in New England’s system, and the Patriots’ coaching staff was able to see him up close and personal twice in the 2017 campaign. In addition, he’d probably be relatively cheap to acquire; I’m guessing around $2 million a year would be enough to acquire him, if that. Even though he isn’t the big name Patriots’ fans would want to see in the headlines, Bass would make a decent rotational piece for Bill Belichick to work with.
Alex Okafor was on pace to have a career year this season before tearing his Achilles late in the year. The former Arizona Cardinal notched 4.5 sacks over 10 games with the New Orleans Saints in 2017, and will likely be available for a relatively reasonable price. Okafor played as a 3-4 OLB in Arizona and a 4-3 DE with the New Orleans, so his versatility would fit New England’s scheme. For what its worth, Pro Football Focus graded Okafor as their 22nd highest edge rusher last year.
Tank Carradine is another current San Francisco 49er who would likely intrigue New England. After playing out of position as a 3-4 OLB for the 49ers the past few years, Carradine was able to reassert himself as a solid run-stuffing 4-3 DE this year after the team switched schemes. As a bigger defensive end, the Patriots likely wouldn’t be able to use him in coverage, but he would be able to set the hard edge the Patriots’ lacked all year long. I personally want to see the Patriots go after both him and Okafor.
Derrick Shelby is another bigger defensive end whose primary role would be against the run; Pro Football Focus graded him positively against the run last year. If Carradine is signed by another team, Shelby would be a solid backup option.
Kerry Wynn is another under-the-radar candidate who the Patriots showed interest in last year. He was a backup along the New York Giants’ defensive line for the past few years and will likely be pretty cheap to acquire. That being said, I don’t know how much Wynn would be able to add to the Patriots’ meager defensive line.
LB: Nigel Bradham
I only have one player here because most of the free agent linebackers this year are two-down run stoppers, and the Patriots already have enough of those in Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Elandon Roberts. What the Patriots really need is a linebacker who can cover; Hightower and Van Noy are too slow to keep up with running backs, and Roberts has terrible instincts that cause him to consistently get beat. Bradham would be a plug-and-play option who would be able to cover running backs on third down while also providing some value against the run. The main obstacles to signing him are that he’ll likely have multiple suitors on the open market and will be expensive — he could get around $6-$7 million per year. There are plenty of athletic linebackers who will be available in the draft this year, but they may be gone by the time the Patriots’ pick at 31st overall. As a result, Bill Belichick could end up deciding to splurge on a player who has already proven himself in the NFL.
If I had to choose who I wanted the Patriots to sign, I would likely select Alex Okafor and Tank Carradine, but these are all somewhat realistic candidates who could provide an instant impact on the Patriots’ defense.
Stay tuned for the next part of this series, where I will discuss running backs and cornerbacks!
(Author’s Note: Stats via Pro-Football-Reference.com ProFootballFocus grades are via ProFootballFocus.com)